Going into last weekend’s trial match, the big question hanging over the Raiders was how the new right edge would gel. A stilted offence is some worry, but easily rectified. What is more of a concern was a patchy defence, which could present an early season problem for the Green Machine.
When it comes to the interaction and operation of combinations, most commentators tend to focus on their offensive output. Fox Sports’ George Clarke and Darcie McDonald called the output of the right edge “solid if unspectacular.” While it failed to spark any points, Williams looked willing and able to take the line on, Scott and Cotric capable of breaking a tackle. The major issue was the positioning of Corey Horsburgh, hardly a surprise for a man who has never played backrower in his life. Instead of the backrower forcing defenders to choose their poison, Horsburgh positioned himself so wide that defenders were bunched, and able to cover all options without being forced into any decisions. That’s an experience problem, and as familiarity and combination build, so will their output. When Horsburgh ran some closer lines to Georgie boy’s shoulder, you could see the fear in the defence’s eyes. The main challenge there is what NRL CEO Toddy G, as well as the NSW legal system decides to do with Scott.
What is more concerning is the defensive structure. As we noted in the Raiders Review, Horsburgh’s relative lack of lateral pace means attackers can get outside him on occasion. On multiple occasions this forced George Williams to try and jam outside in, in the face of overwhelming numbers. It’s the kind of issue that makes everyone look at the half and centre because the decision they’re forced into looks so out of place. The issue however is caused inwards.
This is particularly pronounced in the Raiders’ defence. John Bateman is so mobile that he often chases oppositions halves across the field, much to their surprise. It covered for all manner of issues, and took away the ability to target Aidan Sezer. Targeting the small guy is the go to of pretty much every NRL attack, so this was a big part of why the Milk succeeded in 2019. Horsburgh simply doesn’t have the pace to do this
Horsburgh shouldn’t be castigated for this. For starters, he’s a prop, and a damn good one. This is reportedly the first time he’s played second row. With centre, it’s probably the hardest defensive position to play, requiring split second decision making and an ability to not handle power and pace in defence. The decision to put him in a position he’s so ill-fitted to physically is reminiscent of making Aidan Sezer play hooker when Josh Hodgson was injured. It’s a huge ask, and for the Red Horse to be successful will require one of the most impressive learning curves you will see.
It’s also a bit weird, given the likely return of Bateman and Hudson Young, to be forcing a young player into such a difficult position when you have players on the roster who have played edge before. At the end point of all this, will Horsburgh play second-row when Bateman and Whitehead are on deck? Is he a long term answer there beyond Smelly retiring in the medium-term future? Neither of these seem likely. Horsburgh is going to be a dead-set star as a middle forward, so it’s not clear why his career should take such a deviation.
In the end it’s a time limited problem. John Bateman and Hudson Young will (hopefully) be on board in a few rounds. If the Raiders can take advantage of the early home-heavy schedule we may be talking about a team that’s got more wins than losses when Bateman returns and it will all prove much ado about nothing. But as any observer of the Milk will note, teams have been pretty good at targeting the Raiders weak points in defence in the past, and they’ve all had multiple weeks to prepare for it.
The Raiders too have time to prepare, and Horsburgh will know just how much he needs to be able to cover to attackers trying to get outside him. If he can’t, then it will be interesting to see how long before Coach Stuart looks elsewhere to patch the defence. If they can’t find a satisfactory fix, the Raiders could have a problem on their hands.